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Urvashi Butalia - Translating Women’s Voices in India

26 Jul 2015

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist writer, publisher and founder of Zubaan Books. She spoke at the Australia India Institute on Wednesday July 8th, 2015.

India has over 20 different languages, so for Indians translation is really an act of daily negotiation. Delhi, the city where I live, has many enclaves where people of the same linguistic group have gathered together. Often when you go into these places you need to be able to speak the language there. If I go into a place called Chittaranjan Park to buy fish it is very difficult to buy it in Hindi – I have to buy it in Bengali. Similarly, if I go into a place called Munirka to buy coffee then I have to buy it in Malayalum or Tamil or I won’t get very good coffee.

Sometimes this negotiation has less to do with language itself as it does with other things, like gender. In India, the language in which women speak and write is often quite different from the mainstream, which is still very patriarchal.The women we publish are also not necessarily literary women, not women for whom writing comes naturally and as a first activity, but they have something to say and their lives are important for us to hear about and to publish.

The women we publish are also not necessarily literary women, not women for whom writing comes naturally and as a first activity, but they have something to say and their lives are important for us to hear about and to publish.

We have been publishing in India for about 30 years, and we do so in English. If you divide Indian publishing by language Hindi and English occupy the biggest space – about 70 per cent of the total – and some languages occupy a very small proportion of what is published. As we publish women’s writing we are in many ways an alternative to the mainstream. 

But while publishing women’s voices is clearly an alternative activity in the patriarchal world of knowledge, it’s important to remember that there are many alternatives within the alternative. We could just stay with publishing literate, educated, urban and mostly English speaking and writing women. But by doing this, you’re still remaining within the language of privilege, within the geography of privilege. Furthermore, in translation you can easily go to the writers who are well-known in one language or another and who are a part of the literary establishment. but how do you go beyond that? How do you reach beyond that to the women who have something different to say, but who don’t necessarily have the words to say it, who do not have the script to say it, and who do not have the power to approach publishers to be able to say it. So we look at the kind of literatures that they generate and to publish those in translation. For me, this is one of the most exciting challenges as a publisher.

I can tell you, however, that doing this doesn’t make you any money. We might be publishing books that we think are off the wall, but when we publish a translation from Tamil or Malayalam into English and then we try to find an international publisher for it, we are faced with quite a lot of interesting questions and doubts. For example, one of the books that we published was by a domestic worker, called A Life Less Ordinary. The author came from a very poor family and had a very difficult life. But in many ways for the poor in a country like India, the hardships and the violence that they face becomes a daily routine thing and, therefore, the way that they describe these things is also very flat, routine and unmelodramatic. “Yesterday my husband beat me, he did this to me, and then I went out and did this, and then I came home and he beat my children. I was pregnant with my third child and he never came to the hospital and I had a really difficult birth.” That’s it. But when this book travelled outside of India, I had a British publisher really like the book, but he said “it’s a misery memoir, but it’s just not miserable enough – can you make it a little more miserable?” Because the expectation of the readership in places like Britain and Australia is that the violence needs to be described in more detail, otherwise it is not effective enough.

It is one thing to publish these women’s voices, but it is quite another for the readers of those voices to be as open to them as the writers would want you to be. Being a niche publisher in this sense makes you think very seriously about the nature of readership and of our receptivity to stories other than those that we know well. The act of translation is an act of communicating a publication and a culture to a wider audience. When these works come from India they, we hope, reflect some of the richness of the country’s diversity. However, in order to really understand translations and to be receptive to them, one has to look beyond one’s own comfort zone as a reader and be open to the things that these translations bring.

The act of translation is an act of communicating a publication and a culture to a wider audience.

I hope when people read books from strange countries like India they read the women’s books first. Their stories will be one notch stranger, one step further away from the mainstream and therefore you need to open your minds much more to these works. However, these women have something to say. Most of all, their works reflect the deep aspirations for change of women in India.

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